But what I really want to discuss is the ‘profession’ of acting. There are professional actors, those who are trained, paid and praised for this activity. These are artists who have chosen to portray other characters in theater, film, television and other media. Still, it seems like a simple question with a simple answer: “What is acting?” A professional actor’s goal is to portray another individual as honestly and authentically as possible. That’s it. A portrayal. Pretense. Pretending.
Sanford Meisner eloquently stated: “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” How wonderfully simple, direct and true. But, what does it really mean? What does ‘living truthfully’ really entail?
I know, for myself, how difficult it is to live truthfully (or honestly) day-to-day, or moment-to-moment. I know how often I hide, pretend, or manipulate or disguise my own truth (as we discussed above). Yet, I recognize that that modification of my deeper truth is, indeed, the truth of who I am in that moment. So, in a way I am living truthfully even if that truth is a pretense that is hiding a deeper truth.
Confused yet? Me, too. Let’s press on.
As I go through my day I run into challenges, conflicts, opportunities, surprises, disappointments, etc. and I admit that I am often not clear about how I feel about something that has just happened or something someone has said. And I often feel conflicted between how I ‘want’ to react and how I think I ‘should’ react and even how I do react. I know very clearly that this uncertainty or confusion in these moments is my truth. So, in a way, I am living truthfully. And I am aware that there is a big difference between ‘living truthfully’ and ‘telling the truth’. What I express in these moments may not be what I honestly feel, but the expression itself is true to who I am in that moment. It reflects me, honestly – even if the expression is a lie.
Now, back to acting. How do we explore and experience this level of truthfulness when we are portraying a character? And, how well do we need to know our characters in order to reveal them honestly and authentically?
An actor reads a script. Within one reading he will get an idea, an impulse, a sense of his character. Ideas of how to play that character from scene to scene rumble or race through the actor’s mind. And the actor begins to prepare. He has ideas of what research is needed, what self-exploration might be required or helpful. Depending on his training or experience he might work with substitutions, ‘as ifs’, effective memory, improvisation, journaling, etc. And this work will go on until the actor has constructed and discovered sufficient material to get him comfortably grounded in the character and the circumstances. And, quite possibly, all of this work has come before there is any significant rehearsal with the director and other actors – if there is any rehearsal at all.
And when the time comes to embody the character (in rehearsal or performance) the actor will draw upon this preparation in order to plunge himself into the character.
And now he is in the character. And now he is acting. But, what is he doing? What is really going on inside the actor? There is a very conscious activity going on that I call ‘acting awareness’. The actor is controlling, constructing, consciously and unconsciously manipulating the character to behave in certain ways based upon all of his research, training, preparation, etc. The actor is acting. He is pretending, controlling and manipulating.
“Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
What happened to ‘living truthfully’? The character (I assume) isn’t acting, pretending, controlling and manipulating in order to portray another character. The character isn’t deciding how to play a moment based on research, training and preparation.
No, the character is basically dealing with this moment in his life as best he can. This is all determined by his needs, goals, history, expectations, fears and desires – not the actor’s.
Our lives are out of control. By this I mean we, each and every one of us, live ‘on the cusp’. The cusp is the present moment where we balance ourselves between the known (the past) and the unknown (the future). We know we can’t change the past (no matter how much we would like to) and we know that we can’t predict the future. The only place where we can be effective is ‘in the moment’, in this moment that we are experiencing right now. And, it’s even questionable how much control we have of this moment. So, we are out of control – always.
And, since our goal as storytellers is to present authentic characters living truthfully, we want to portray individuals who are as much ‘out of control’ as you and I are. We want to see characters who are living ‘on the cusp’. And, in order for an actor to ‘live truthfully’ within a character ‘on the cusp’ he must abandon all of the pretending, controlling and manipulating tools of the actor.
“What?” you say. “Abandon acting? At the very moment when that is what is required?” Yes, that is what I am saying. The best ‘acting’ is when there is none. (There’s an oxymoron for you). The best performances are when the actor has reached a state of abandonment, release, totally letting go and truthfully living on the cusp as the character. And when the actor becomes unconscious of the ‘acting’ and conscious only of the physical, mental and emotional state of the character, this is when the actor is truly living in the moment – not as the actor – only as the character.
And that is acting – at its best.